Budapest, Hungary Report of what it's like to live there - 02/24/08

Personal Experiences from Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, Hungary 02/24/08

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This is my 3rd overseas post, second in Europe.

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2. How long have you lived here?

2.5 years.

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3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

I work for the U.S. government.

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4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

Varies -- citypair with Washington routes through Frankfurt. Delta has flight to NY, most typical codeshares work.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing consists of apartments closer to work in Pest for singles/couples/sometimes families with young children with commute of 5-30 minutes. Townhomes, apartments, houses, duplexes are in Buda hills for most families and some couples/singles -- commute range from 35 minutes to over an hour, often with steep uphill/downhill walks which are a lot longer during snowy/ice periods in winter.

The American school is located in a remote valley -- 45 minute+ commutes are common.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

The small embassy commissary offers a ready supply of must-have American brands while open markets are great for reasonably priced fruits and vegetables. There are lots of grocery options - hypermarts are the best bet for avoiding breaking the bank. Gourmet store Culinaris is great for splurges and also offers fresh cranberries for the holidays.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Favorite brands.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

McDonald's, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, TGIF -- lots American to choose from. Several places offer online ordering and delivery including sushi and great local pizza Don Pepe. Acceptable restaurants abound, with exceptional restaurants rare. Chinese, Indian, Italian popular.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

We are very lucky to have found help for 1000 forints an hour, with most ranging higher, 1500+.The help is available, but choice is limited, especially if you are looking for any English language skills. If your housekeeper cooks, expect only Hungarian cuisine. People seem to be able to find nannies.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Despite world-class technology and ATMS all over the place, many restaurants and smaller stores strongly prefer cash. Some shady-seeming places probably wouldn't be the best place to risk sharing your credit card data.

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4. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There seems to be a great variety here.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Cable packages and AFN can both provide programming. Movies are often dubbed but subtitled versions are available. There are 2 English-language news weeklies and at least 2 business monthlies.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

A FAST course would be perfect. Survival Hungarian for restaurants, shopping and public transport is a must though some seem to survive with difficulty. Beyond that, you would really need to have very high proficiency to get more out of the tour. Most official contacts speak English. Every amount of Hungarian helps, though, in this country where most do not speak a second language.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Hills, lots of stairs, high sidewalks with few ramps, split-foyer designs which require use of stairs to reach the elevator, no-parking poles and other sidewalk fixtures -- all are challenges, but not insurmountable. The Embassy has many built-in accommodations.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

Right, though using oncoming lane to pass is common. Traffic laws are suggestions in Budapest and roads are sometimes in terrible shape and uniformly inadequate for current traffic loads. Traffic is slated to get worse in 2008, 2009, or beyond depending on when they begin to close major bridges for repairs and on-again, off-again construction of 4th metro line.

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2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are safe if you call them. Public transport is affordable although slightly less extensive than you might want. Trains are a great way to get around. Keep in mind -- not too much English spoken and this can be an issue in navigating transport.

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3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Theft is reported to be an issue but mainly with German cars. Service is available for most brands at reasonable prices. Parts are another issue -- though dealers with service departments can order them. We successfully ordered tires by pouch.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

US$35-40/month for a speedy cable connection.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Get them on the same network as the Embassy for free inter-family calls.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

Vonage or Skype would seem best; we use inexpensive phone cards which work great.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Excellent, with training, grooming, etc. available. Not all kennel services are reliable -- get references. Vets and groomers can make house calls.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Yes, for the persistent. This is the area where so many people migrated in the early 90's looking for opportunity and many of those people are still around, successful, and hiring. Tax professionals will have no trouble finding work, and teaching opportunities seem good.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Hungarians are fairly style-conscious, and generally do not wear athletic clothes around town. Suits or sportcoats with ties are the norm for men dealing with the public at the Embassy while business casual hasn't really caught on for men or women.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Moderate -- sometimes there is very dirty air in Pest with reliably cleaner air in the Buda hills.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Demonstrations are becoming more common and can be violent, though they tend to be localized. Juvenile gangs are cropping up in popular shopping areas. Police can seem ineffective -- reports of bribes are common. It seems as safe and/or safer as in major U.S. and many European cities, just less ordered in how that happens. Beware of the bar scam where pretty girls will ask you to buy them drinks, which somehow total up to hundreds of dollars at the end of the night.

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

This is a tricky area because the national public health care in Hungary suffers from a number of problems. The expertise is here but the delivery can be a challenge outside a few private clinics and the health unit. Hungary hosts dental and laser vision correction tourists, and care in these areas is excellent. Hospitals are a particular concern, so medevacs are routine.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Pleasant-to-beautiful summers and falls with sometimes brutal winters. Weather is warmer, milder, and more polluted in Pest than in Buda.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are several to choose from. Our kids attended AISB, the biggest, which has been a perfect fit at times, but has its issues. The high school rigidly offers the IB program, with many students dropping out of the full diploma and sometimes feeling as though that puts them out of favor. I don't know when/how this will change. School trips for sports, etc. can be extremely expensive. On the other hand, there are many, many wonderful, nurturing teachers and a recent change in administration has brought fresh ideas. There are no strings music programs. The Middle School program is excellent. Grading standards can seem tough and/or inexplicable at many levels -- students really have to earn their higher grades. Parents and students seem pleased with other schools.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Very student-specific. AISB can be understanding, and has a great resource teacher for younger students. But, they and/or the community don't necessarily have the resources for support. Recently, an American psychologist specializing in teen issues has set up practice. My guess is that this has been a real help for the school, as well.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are many options -- families with younger children seem happy with preschools. Some have had good luck with nannies.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Not as big as we would have expected. You can find them at some real expat hangouts, though, which can be fun: Iguana's tex-mex restaurant and Treehugger Dan's bookstore.

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2. Morale among expats:

Mixed. The bureaucracy, language, social conditions, and corruption (i.e. tradition of gratuities to doctors) can be difficult. On the other hand, the culture, the history, the wine...

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

This is strictly what you make it -- few demands are placed on embassy staff except at senior levels. Many sections of the embassy have wonderful local/American informal social events. Nightlife, concerts, festivals abound.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Hungarians seem reserved to some, unfriendly to others, but can display wonderful hospitality, great senses of humor, and dazzling sensitivity and loyalty as friends at times. Even with effort, getting past the reserve can be difficult. So, families and couples may be best-suited to enjoy this just because they have their own built-in support group. Singles don't seem to enjoy the city as much, or as uniformly.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Paradoxically, Budapest seems to have a thriving gay scene but at the same time some real social issues seem to remain -- i.e. a leading politician was maliciously outed in 07. Gay colleagues have given the city mixed reviews.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Hungary is surprisingly Caucasian and apparently ethnically uniform. Minorities -- the Roma, the significant Chinese population, others -- really stick out. Despite large Jewish community, mild tensions all around seem to remain. Far-right extremist groups make the press but represent atypical views. Both law and prevailing public opinion seem very accepting and accommodating of differences, with the possible exception of generalized concerns about the Roma.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

All outdoor activities, with beautiful parks, great hills, etc. Lake Balaton has outstanding beaches, boating, outdoor nightclubs. Local wines are great in every price point. Frequent festivals and Christmas markets offer great food and drink. Lots of movie theaters and a surprising number of modern shopping centers cater to those pastimes. The historic sights of Budapest are world-class, and the surrounding area is full of fun day trips and suited to longer excursions. Classical music and ballet (Nutcracker, opera) a treat in this city that truly values culture.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Antiques, pottery from the artisanal to heirloom, jewelry, excellent honey and, of course, paprika. Tea is popular here, including a street of tea houses.

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9. Can you save money?

If you don't travel, don't buy clothes locally, and avoid eating out. This is a COLA post. Many restaurants are relatively inexpensive, and shoes are a surprising value. With the weakening dollar, items get more expensive every day.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely!

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Expectations for cheap living.

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3. But don't forget your:

Warm, dry clothing, and patience for the traffic and the aggressive drivers.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Embers, Bridge on the Andau.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Embers, Bridge on the Andau.

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Kontroll.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Natural beauty, food, drink, culture, history.

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